Elephant Man

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power

by Garry Wills
Atlantic/Little, Brown, 310 pp., $14.95

There are no new facts about the Kennedys, only new attitudes, a literature that, like the automobile industry, puts new bodies on old chassis. First there were those huge, polluting gas guzzlers, the Sorensen and the Schlesinger, like Chrysler and Ford, now discredited and nearly bankrupt: useful only insofar as their parts can be cannibalized for nuts and bolts, their gushy excesses, like tailfins, always good for sport. Conspiracy is a small but durable seller, retooled every year or so. And these days revisionism is the hottest item off the assembly line, each model sleek and economical, with a racy name, “Destroyer,” say, or “Marauder.”

In The Kennedy Imprisonment, Garry Wills flashes his Marauder across the high plains of Camelot like a night rider—burn the barn, destroy the crops, take no prisoners, scorch the myth as if it were the earth itself. The myth of the Kennedys—and the hold—was always the hold of the renegade rich, out there on the frontier beyond accountability. There are no legends about the Duponts; the legends are about Howard Hughes. Nor do the Rockefellers quicken the pulse the way the Kennedys did, and do. The Rockefellers only have money and a foundation and a museum and a bank and suits with vests. Nelson Rockefeller supervised Diego Rivera at the beginning of his working life and at the end was supervising expensive reproductions; ironic but not the stuff of legend.

The Kennedys shared only one attitude with the traditional American rich: they assumed that the possessors of great wealth constituted a real if unacknowledged—this is a republic, after all—nobility. With the aid of the “cool media” and a gut understanding of the power that media could wield, they pushed this proposition one step further: the Kennedys were not merely noble, they were regal, and by shrewd manipulation of the media, the divine right of their sovereignty was acknowledged. They knighted what Wills calls “honorary Kennedys,” and we remember the names and MOSs of these troops as we remember second cousins and family retainers—Red Fay and Kenny O’Donnell and Larry O’Brien and Dave Powers and Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, the gutter Irish NCOs who told the jokes and kept the grunts in step and did the dirty work and cleaned up afterward. The officers’ mess was positively Dickensian in the breadth of its arriviste and aristocratic pretensions—the Bundys and the Rostows and McNamara and Dillon and Rusk and poor Adlai Stevenson and poor Chester Bowles. Even the gazeteers of this brigade carried colors. Joseph Alsop was William Howard Russell and Theodore H. White brevetted himself Sir Thomas Malory; Arthur Schlesinger prowled around the perimeter of the encampment like Mr. Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited.

Then Dallas, then the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The myth was lit into an eternal flame and honorary Kennedys were anointed its keepers. The thousand days of John Kennedy became Camelot, the eightyfive days of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign the end of promise. Those early hagiographies, born…

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